This is the stuff of the holiday season: trimming the tree, miles of ribbon tying piles of gifts, endless parties, cookies and candies not found any other time of the year, dreaming of a white Christmas, over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s condo, gluttony at a holiday dinner where the table is literally a groaning board. Praise the Lord and pass the bi-carb!
Why do we do this? Why this annual assault on mind and body? For many reasons: of course there are the childhood memories, now blurred by the realities of adulthood. Fantasies at best, or conditioned reflex at worst ... And then there is the really serious reason ... the commercials and stores that have had us in their sights since Columbus Day.
For too long now, the world has carried the weight of too much seriousness. We worry about everything — taxes, war, obesity, bad grades, endangered critters, halitosis. But with all that worrying, are we any better off? Are your teeth any whiter? What are we missing?
Yes. Tired of this Gloomy Gus talk? What exactly is a holiday? Isn’t it a time for celebration? Break the word down, and what do you get? Holy day. But what’s fun about that? Holiness is essentially as serious a subject as God.
Well, you’re wrong about that. God is a lot of things to a lot of people. But read your Bible, and see that God was not always the serious entity that we try to make Him out to be. Just look at His creation story. He doesn’t seem to huff and puff much over it. Instead, He tosses it off with a word here, a nudge there, and a little body English. He is a magician, not a day laborer. He obviously was having a good time.
Listen to the prophet Isaiah. “And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wine, of fat things full of marrow, of wine well refined.” It is a holiday, you see, that God finally has in mind, for Himself and for creation. He made it all. Mountains or mice, whales or woolly worms, fruitcakes or fondues, parsons or pastry cooks. It is all a celebration. And that is where we lose it.
We have come to think that stuff and having stuff is all somehow bad. And that is not the case. Stuff is one of God’s brightest ideas. When He thinks up a duck, for example, you don’t get the thought of a duck, or a plan for a duck, or a prototype of a duck. By golly, you get a duck — feathers, quacks, waddles! The whole nine yards of quacking duck stuff.
Let’s go back to that creation story in the Book of Genesis. What did God do every evening when he got off work? He looked at the stuff he had made that day, sat back, smiled, and said “That’s good! That’s really good!” But what do we do? We are so into spiritual hot air that we never get around to the marvel of all the stuff that is all around us.
For example: Let’s take snow. Christmas card prettiness or automotive disaster. Why can’t we simply marvel at the beauty of the whiteness?
Our problem is not TV commercials, expensive toys, silk ties and lingerie. The problem is our unwillingness or inability to open up an astonished heart and truly celebrate.
And what is the solution to this problem? It’s simply to celebrate the holidays as feasts were always meant to be celebrated. We celebrate at certain times precisely because we don’t celebrate at most times. We set out hefty hams and monstrous turkeys for the feast. We surround them with too many vegetables and shameless excesses of potatoes. We wash them down with rivers of wine or tea or even Dr. Pepper. And then we eat with gusto and with crowds of friends and family members. We share all the good holiday stuff that we’ve waited for all year. And why is that a good thing? It’s a good thing because unless we give ourselves a good slap upside the head every once in a while, we run the risk of forgetting there’s more to life than years of ordinary meals.
The essential thing is to experience the holidays. Put yourself out. Throw yourself into it. Do it all — the planning, the preparation, setting the table, the cooking, the serving, and above all, the feasting. Help, of course, is permissible because it’s sociable, and sociability is one of the great elements of feasting and celebrating.
In other words, look out at all the gorgeous stuff in front of you. Few people ever die of holiday meals, however lavish. Yes, the holidays are about remembering. But look carefully at the word. Remembering — putting back together — here and how, at this table, in the company of these people — of the dis-membered fragments of our lives. None of the great holidays of our traditions is a head-trip to the past. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Passover, Easter are all celebrations of things that are true now and new now. They are seasons to proclaim the holiness of the secular in its own right, as the handiwork of the holy God.
So does any of this make any sense? I can’t prove a word. But since it’s so much nicer than a lot of dismal things I’ve heard all my life, I buy it gladly. All it requires of me is food, drink, a stove, a table, some work, and a few friends — and the willingness to shut up about the evils of stuff and drink to the holiness of it all. It makes me feel human and holy. L’Chaim! Salute! Cheers!